Welcome to June 20, 3018 of the Third Age. Today we’ll look at the Battle for Osgiliath, which took place on this date.
But first, some background.
Like most great battles, the Battle of Osgiliath did not exist in a vacuum. The defenders didn’t wake up one morning and see some angry enemy at their gates. Though they seemed to have been caught a bit off guard, this day was not the first day of the war (though it’s usually seen as such).
The Nameless Enemy
We can begin this story over 1,000 years before this date, when the Nazgûl returned to Mordor. Sauron was at Dol Guldur, and they were preparing a place for him. As part of this preparation, Mordor took advantage of a rocky between Gondor and its neighbors.
Starting in the mid 1800s, the Wainriders (made up mostly of disjointed bands from the “east”) attacked and seized the Gondorian land of Rhovanion. This land, located north of Mordor and northeast of Gondor, started a domino effect, which resulted in Gondor losing all of its land east of the Anduin.
The fighting sputtered out until the Wainriders allied themselves with the Haradrim, people living to the south of Gondor, and the Variags, people living to the southeast of Mordor. With all the lands east of the Anduin out of Gondor’s control, Mordor saw an opportunity.
With Gondor’s forces pinned down across a wide front, in the year 2000 the Nazgûl directed a siege of Minas Ithil, a city and tower situated on the western hills of the Ephel Dúath (Mountains of Shadow, across which lay Mordor). Two years later, the city fell and was transformed into Minas Morgul.
This happened about 1,000 years before Boromir spoke at the Council of Elrond:
“When the Enemy returned our folk were driven from Ithilien, our fair domain east of the River, though we kept a foothold there and strength of arms.”
Boromir then fastforwarded to the present moment.
There was, however, a “Watchful Peace” where some Gondorians returned to Ithilien. They strengthened their defenses at first, but over the centuries of peace began to relax them.
Finally, in 2460 (around 600 years before the present time), Sauron returned to Dol Guldur and began to re-establish ties with his old allies. Before the century was over, he had invaded Ithilien and re-established his hold in Moria and along the Anduin.
With that, there was basically a stalemate. Sauron was a growing threat, but nobody in Gondor knew his timeline. He was playing the long game.
Through the 2700s, Orcs do battle with both Hobbits and Dwarves. The following century, the Enemy attacks across a broader front into Rohan and Gondor. Gandalf urges the White Council to attack Dol Guldur, but Saruman, now searching for the Ring, declines.
In the 2900s, Uruks of Mordor launch a stunning attack upon whomever was left in Ithilien, driving them across the Anduin. At last, in 2951, Sauron declares himself and three years later, Mount Doom comes alive again.
Boromir referenced this in the Council of Elrond:
“Smoke rises once more from Orodruin that we call Mount Doom. The power of the Black Land grows and we are hard beset.”
The Battle Itself
For the next seventy or so years, Sauron’s power and resources grow. His main objective is to find the One Ring. With that, there’s no real need for a war to conquer Middle-earth.
Sauron had allowed Gollum to escape, hoping that he would lead him to the One Ring. Unfortunately for Sauron, however, he lost track of Gollum and then later learned that the little creature was captured by a man. He also learned that Gandalf had passed through Thranduil’s realm in northern Mirkwood.
Putting two and two together, Sauron understood that the Wise knew about Gollum and the Ring and that he would have to act before he was ready. With urgency being the prime motivation, he unleashed the Nazgûl.
From Unfinished Tales we learn that along with capturing Gollum, Sauron had other objectives in mind. He knew that Gondor was going to be a problem. Because of this, he decided to launch a surprise attack upon Osgiliath, the city spanning the Anduin. If his forces could hold the bridge, the Nazgûl could cross. This battle would also give him an idea of Gondor’s strength.
Boromir told the Council of Elrond a bit about the battle:
“But this very year, in the days of June, sudden war came upon us out of Mordor, and we were swept away. We were outnumbered, for Mordor has allied itself with the Easterlings and the cruel Haradrim….”
Tolkien tells a bit more in Unfinished Tales, and we learn that “the passage of the bridge was effected.” Though Boromir would later explain that Gondor was “outnumbered,” Tolkien seems to doubt that. “The forces there used were probably much less than men in Gondor thought.”
The reason for this was known to Boromir, though he didn’t fully grasp it, explaining “but it was not by numbers that we were defeated. A power was there that we have not felt before.”
“Some said it could be seen, like a great black horseman, a dark shadow under the moon. Wherever he came a madness filled our foes, but fear fell on our boldest, so that horse and man gave way and fled.”
This was, Tolkien explains, the Witch-king, who was “allowed to reveal himself briefly in his full terror…”
But the battle was not quite at an end. “Only a remnant of our eastern force came back,” Boromir continued, “destroying the last bridge that still stood amid the ruins of Osgiliath.”
“I was in the company that held the bridge, until it was cast down behind us. Four only were saved by swimming: my brother and myself and two others.”
Tolkien later put into context what Boromir was trying to explain.
“Without belittling the valour of Gondor, which indeed Sauron found greater far than he had hoped, it is clear that Boromir and Faramir were able to drive back the enemy and destroy the bridge, only because the attack had now served its main purpose.”
That “main purpose” was to test Gondor’s strength and to cross the Nazgûl, both of which were accomplished.
In another telling published in Unfinished Tales, Tolkien claims:
“Thus Sauron tested the strength and preparedness of Denethor [Steward of Gondor], and found them more than he had hoped. But that troubled him little, since he had used little force in the assault, and his chief purpose was that the coming forth of the Nazgûl should appear only as part of his policy of war against Gondor.”
In truth, Sauron needed the Nazgûl to cross the Anduin to find the Ring.
Just how many Nazgûl were at the battle is up for some debate. Obviously, the Witch-king was present, but what of the others? All of this will be discussed shortly. Following a battle, there is often a bit of down time – a few days, perhaps. The Nazgûl crossed the Anduin, to be sure, we the date given for when they begin their search for the Ring is July 1st. We’ll return to this story then.
The attack upon Thranduil’s realm was to happen “simultaneously” with the attack on Osgiliath. It’s likely, however, that they were separated by a few days. We’ll get to that shortly, and we’ll also check in on the Shire.